What we did on our holidays...

Wilderness Wheels, Morocco

Words by Simon Bradley,

pics by Simon Bradley, Dave Prosser, Mungo Williams

In September 2023 Morocco was struck by a catastrophic earthquake that killed thousands and made many more homeless. Two months later a bunch of mates came out to muck around on motorbikes.

Best bikes ever made...for this sort of thing. Gravel surprisingly hard to ride on.OK, so what actually happened was that we booked the trip in March, and after news came through about the earthquake we checked with the tour company and offered our services to Medicins San Frontiers (or whoever else may need us) and were politely but firmly asked to just come, enjoy ourselves and spend some money – what the country needed was tourism and income, not well meaning idiots not really helping much.

So that’s what we did.

Our trip was organised through Wilderness Wheels, who are based in Ouarazate (pronounced Waazazat). It’s a small but really professional outfit run by an amiable young Brit called Sam who is assisted by a couple of the most chilled blokes I’ve ever met. They arrange the accommodation, food, drinks, kit if you need it and, most importantly, the bikes. Which are current model KTM 450s in truly excellent condition. You will not find a better bike for the ride. They also provide coaching, advice, mickey taking and emotional support, while leaving you plenty of scope to ride your own ride, go at your own pace and fall off in any manner you may choose. Flights are up to you, but they will sort transfers as well. We flew into Marrakesh on a Saturday and stayed in town overnight, took a minibus transfer to Ouarzazate on the Sunday and reversed the process on the way home, with a spare day in Marrakesh to decompress.

That’s what you might call the Executive Summary. Obviously there’s a bit more to it than that. Otherwise this would be a very short article.

Let’s go back to the beginning. As a group we were looking for a trip to celebrate some major birthdays, and after a few surprisingly sober discussions we ended up deciding on an off-road adventure. Once that decision was made then Morocco became the most sensible destination, and a little research gave us a shortlist of just one organiser – Wilderness Wheels. There are other companies out there, but the combination of the routes offered, the ability to provide kit (if needed) and the bikes swayed it. Plus the fact that when we emailed them stupid questions they responded and were really nice and patient.

Wilderness Wheels has been going for some time, started by Peter Gray, and Sam Handley took it over in mid Covid, after working with Peter for a couple of years. Peter is still loosely involved – his retirement plans were accelerated by the pandemic and everything just fell into place. And that sort of sums up the organisation as a whole, actually. People who work together, sometimes formally, sometimes not, but seemingly because they actually like each other. Here's something about Morocco. Obviously it’s a massive generalisation, but Moroccan people are lovely. And Sam is a genuinely nice bloke, which helps. While we were there he was assisted on the tour by an equally genial Belgian chap called Jolan and Emilien, a Swiss army reservist. Both as mad as a box of frogs (or whatever the Belgian and Swiss equivalent may be) but immensely talented on a motorbike and pretty good at dealing with idiots like us as well.

Anyway. We flew in to Marrakech on a Saturday morning. Early. Oh my word it was early. Marrakesh airport is a revelation, because it is nothing like your (OK,my) preconceptions. It’s spotlessly clean, calm, brilliantly well Insert suitable copyright (so I can't use it) expression hereorganised and terrifyingly efficient. And the border control officers are spectacularly humourless. Leave the airport and some of the preconceptionscome real. Traffic is, um, hilarious. People, bicycles, scooters, delivery trikes, taxis, everything. Going in all directions. All at once. Oddly, nobody seems to die in this mechanical mayhem, but restful it is not. Three and a half hours flying time from Gatwick, that’s all. And it’s the gateway to another world. Just relax, walk around and take in the sights, sounds and smells. Have a coffee or a mint tea or a fruit juice in the square. Get something to eat if you want – it’ll be cheap and delicious and may not even be a tajine (though probably will be).

Sunday morning’s minibus ride to Ouarzazate was about five hours, plus a stop for lunch. I really don’t like being driven, but it was actually really pleasant – a combination of good driving, a decent modern minibus and great company I think.

Ouarzazate is a really weird place. You know you’re nearly there because the Eye of Sauron is gazing balefully at you. OK, so it’s actually a massive solar collector but it has a distinctly Lord of the Rings vibe to it. It’s also the home of not one but two major film studios, where epics like Gladiator, The Mummy and chunks of Game of Thrones have been filmed. More importantly, of course, it’s where Wilderness Wheels are based.

Enough background waffle, let’s get on with it.

After arriving at the riad we had a few minutes to dump our luggage in our rooms and get into our kit, sometimes for the first time, before being collected by the team and taken to their base to collect the bikes and have a first shakedown ride. The bikes, as I’ve said before, are 450 EXC KTMs and they’re pretty new. They’re also just about perfect for the job as they’re light, reliable, super-forgiving and really, really crash-worthy. These things are all important as our group ranged from no experience off-road whatsoever through has done a day offroading once in the last ten years to fairly experienced to “turn up at off road events with own bike and kit” experienced. I’ll be writing about protective kit elsewhere, but suffice it to say it all got used. A lot.

The first ride was just a hop down the road and around some dirt tracks, ending up adjacent to the film studios and riding around some of the outdoor stages. It was dusty, the sun was low, it was still pretty hot and it was really eye-opening. It was also very beautiful, but it gave the less experienced of us a real wake-up call as to what to expect tomorrow. In hindsight it was a really easy, gentle introduction…

It gets light early in Morocco in late autumn. It gets dark early too, and not being too keen on ending up riding unmarked desert tracks at night we didn’t get much of a lie-in. After a decent (but not too heavy) breakfast we made the final kit adjustments we needed and went out to the bikes. Snapshot of Morrocco. The bikes are about £10k each, which is a decent chunk of change, especially somewhere that the average salary is about £400 a month. They don’t have ignition keys or any locks whatsoever, and they are parked outside the hotel overnight. Nobody thinks this is unusual or stresses about it because nobody will touch them.

As sunrise locations go, this was pretty good.Ten minutes faffing around and we were ready to go. A ride down the road for a few minutes gave us our first real surprise – we rode through the Old Town. Big Deal, you may say, and in isolation it doesn’t sound much. But the streets are barely wider than the handlebars, we were ducking under laundry and avoiding people, dogs, chickens… it was insane. And hilarious. And exciting. And…the locals didn’t appear fazed by it at all, smiling and waving us through while kids held their hands out for high-fives as we went through. Bizarre. There's a link to a video at the bottom of the page.

Then it was into the desert, taking the track we had first used the previous evening but then carrying on into the wilderness. We got gradually quicker and gradually more confident/cocky until we fell off or at least ran out of talent and track and needed to stop, gather it all together and start again. It was brilliant. A stop after an hour or so had the first challenge – those who wanted could ride up a narrow ridge to the top of a hill for a great view. Those who didn’t want to could relax in the shade for a bit. That’s the way it was over the whole time, by the way. No pressure and plenty of opportunity to decline the more, um, challenging bits if you chose to. This time only the experienced guys went, plus one idiot. The ridge wasn’t actually that narrow, though it seemed it at the time (yes, I was the idiot) and the view from the top made it worth the ride. Even at this early stage on the way up I learned about keeping my distance, because if you lose momentum trying not to run into the chap in front you have a problem and may well have to get off, turn the bike around, haul yourself back on as you go down hill a bit then turn round and take a fresh run at it. On the way back down I learned the importance of watching where the experienced bloke in front actually goes, rather than where I thought he’d go…and had my first proper crash, launching myself over the handlebars. No injury to me or the bike, GoPro recovered and reattached, let’s go.

Water and chocolate break, then out through a slippery, loose gravel valley which was obviously a river bed, through a quarry which, um, focussed the attention (narrow stone tracks with sheer drops do that) and out through some varied terrain including villages and wetlands (who’d have guessed?) to our lunch.

Lunch was a tajine. Of course. Delicious, mind, and freshly cooked. We still had a decent way to go until the overnight stop, so we didn’t hang about too long and were soon back on the road. The afternoon was easier in some ways and harder in others. The ground was open and the track well defined and pretty easy to ride. Mostly. The occasional washout as a result of heavy rain meant that we had to have our wits about us and a few more of us fell off in various comical ways. Nobody got hurt, no bikes were harmed in the making of this road trip. About halfway through the afternoon we had another opportunity to do something sensible or not. Again the experienced guys and idiot elected to tackle “The Gnarly Valley” while the sensible ones took the easier route to the hotel.

Gnarly Valley was quite hard work for an inexperienced idiot. I have no idea how many times I fell off. There were mercifully no people around to hear my stream of profanities as I got stuck again. I was hot, tired and having more fun than I can remember having for ages. I learned a lot about low speed control on very loose surfaces as well as where not to try to go (between rocks that will grip your front wheel like a vice and force you to get off and nearly herniate yourself dragging the thing free would be a good example). There's link to a video of this at the bottom of the page too.

The riad was a welcome site, and it was a fantastic place as well. There was a (cold) swimming pool and the rooms were fantastic with lovely hot water and large comfortable beds. It was also spotless. Wilderness Wheels choose very good accommodation. Dinner was an excitable affair as people ran through their (mis)adventures and then suddenly ran out of steam. Like, I suspect, everyone else I slept like the dead.

Day two was weird. It started off fine with an easy ride out of the town and across open land next to the road, but as soon as we got onto tracks it all went wrong. Basically I felt as though I had forgotten how to ride – I was tense and not in the groove at all. It came to a head when I fell off on a simple corner, but happily I also realised what was wrong – for reasons I will never know I wasn’t looking where I was going. Gave myself a damn’ good talking to and things started to come together again. Good job too, as today we crossed the Middle Atlas mountains, and the crossing wasn’t exactly a gentle affair. But armed with the experience from yesterday we all made it through alive and in various stages of boosted confidence. Dropping down the other side of the mountains, through various villages and then finding ourselves on a road that appeared still to be under construction was fun. Then we went back into the wilderness and were introduced to fech-fech. What is fech-fech I hear you ask. Good question. Imagine some humourist dumping a hundred tons of beige talcum powder on the track in front of you. You’re bimbling along on sand and gravel, everything is going fine and suddenly it feels like someone has slammed on your front brake for you while blindfolding you at the same time. Visibility drops to a couple of feet as the fech-fech fills the air, your mouth and nose are full of grit and you’ve probably fallen off either avoiding the person who has just appeared on the ground in front of you or on your own. Fech-fech provides no grip at all - you simply drop through it and use whatever is underneath for grip. The only good thing is that it doesn’t usually last for long, and if you do stay on then you can get through with lots of throttle and a fair amount of nerve.

We also had out first, gentle introduction to riding on real sand. I did OK but still fell off, again without injury. This time I was on my own so I also avoided the embarrassment. Actually by this stage we’d all done it so many times it wasn’t even embarrassing any more. Just part of the experience.

It was a long day, and by the time we got to the riad we were knackered. Well, I was anyway. Again I’d learned a lot and felt I was getting to grips with it all. The sense of humour remained intact.

Fella gets it wrong out here; he's in a whole world of pain...Day three. The dunes. No gravel, no roads, no rocky bits, hardly any vegetation (apart from camel grass and the very occasional tree), just sand. Riding on sand is unlike anything else, and it’s in some ways counter-intuitive. I can’t explain it, but I will say that as an experiment I rode along at about 15-20mph, turned the bars to almost full lock and carried on going straight. You steer with your weight, and it works. Just plan ahead. A long way ahead. And never just ride over the crest of a dune, because you have no idea what’s on the other side – it may be easy, it may be a nearly sheer drop for a few feet…or a few metres. It won’t be vertical because sand doesn’t work like that. but it’ll be steep enough to make things unpleasant.

The beauty about riding on sand is that, at least at my level on that day, falling off is a fairly painless experience. Usually, though one of our party decided to test that theory and found it to be wanting…

The end of day three saw  us arriving at another riad, this time in the middle of nowhere, tired after a final drag along a road which wasn’t entirely built. It was late and very nearly dark, which is why we’d taken the road. The reason for the lateness isn’t entirely unrelated to our team-mate’s testing of the “crashing on sand doesn’t hurt” theory. Anyway, after a delicious tajine (what else?) and entertaining conversation, music, banter, as was also becoming a pattern, I slept like the dead.

An even earlier start saw us riding up some near-ish dunes to see sunrise. So worth it. Breakfast tajine (yes, really) and off again. Day four was really when everything came together. Gravel, hard packed sand, loose sand, dunes, fech-fech, everything. Including a couple of times when things got rather more exciting than intended… But looking back at the footage it was amazing just how far the less experienced team members had progressed, both in ability and confidence. We actually looked as though we knew what we were doing. Some of the time, anyway.

We stayed the night in a camp rather than a riad, out in the desert. The night sky in the desert has to be seen to be believed. It’s fantastic just how many stars there are on a truly dark, clear night. After a delicious tajine (surprise!) and some music around the fire combined with a couple of walks to the edge of the camp away from the light to gawp at the stars everyone crashed out.

Day five saw us start off with what can only be called mucking around in the dunes. The exit from the camp was, I think, a dried up waterway and while it was quite hard work in places (at least for me) it was also great fun and by the time we stopped for lunch we’d earned it. The obvious, inevitable tajine was accompanied by hot coffee and mint tea, as always, and it was delicious , again as always. The next stretch was interesting. Small towns where a couple of us ended up on the (mercifully unused at the time) football pitch after misreading a bend, snakes on the road, a few miles of constant jumps and a session drag racing and fooling around on hard-baked sand. Oh, and a random army checkpoint in the middle of nowhere. Despite all the tomfoolery and considerable distance covered we arrived at the riad in time to have a swim and relax. It was very welcome indeed, and the place was, as always, fantastic. After dinner (yes, yes) and more laughs and banter it was time to retire.

Fine dining at the Café TailgateDay six was supposed to start with a massively technical short ride (like Gnarly Valley but over a ridge instead) but I woke up feeling a little off colour. In fact I spent the next twelve hours pretty much out of it having contracted norovirus at some point in the previous day or so. Not food poisoning, I stress. While the rest of the team went on to Ouarzazate (with my bike on the support truck) I ended up taking a taxi in the evening. For me, the riding was over.

We planned the trip to have a decompress day in Marrakesh. It’s a 5-6 hour minibus ride from Ouarzazate assuming nothing goes wrong, so the spare time is definitely worth having. Plus Marrakesh is a fascinating city to wander around.

I got home with fewer aches and pains than I left with, fewer boots (because I left them behind deliberately) and thousands of memories that will be with me forever. I don’t know how much of what I did will actually translate to useful road techniques, but I do know that I’ll be getting an off-road bike at some point and seeing what I can do here.

If you can get the time off it’s definitely worth the experience. And you could do a lot worse than booking with Wilderness Wheels. Ask for Sam and tell him Simon sent you.

Thanks to Sam, Jolan and Emilien for looking after us. And to Jim, Dave, Mungo, Richard and Matt for allowing me to use their pictures and being such great company.

Bottom line? If you possibly can, do it. You’ll never forget it.


In a first for us there are videos relating to this story on our YouTube channel



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